WASHINGTON - Setting up a showdown with President Bush, the Senate moved yesterday toward approval of a $295 billion highway bill that the White House has threatened to veto as excessive in the face of huge budget deficits.
A majority of Republicans joined Democrats in voting to exceed, by about $11 billion, the spending limit set by the White House and endorsed in a budget agreement adopted by Congress two weeks ago.
The 76-22 vote on a motion to raise the spending limit - a display of bipartisanship in a chamber headed toward a partisan showdown over the use of filibusters to block judicial nominees - underscored the power of pothole politics.
The highway bill, expected to be one of the biggest pieces of legislation to come before Congress this year, has become a test of what deficit hawks hope will be a more determined effort by Bush to rein-in spending. Bush has yet to veto a bill during his presidency.
But the bill also is among the most popular, with lawmakers from both parties eager to show they are doing something about everybody's favorite gripe: traffic congestion.
The Senate is expected to pass the bill by the end of the week. That will set up negotiations with the House, whose version of the legislation adhered to the $284 billion spending limit set by the administration.
Senators from states such as California, which receive less transportation money from Washington than residents pay in gasoline taxes, were among those pushing for greater spending.
The higher amount helps solve what has been a thorny political problem: how to give more money to states that get back less money than they send to Washington without taking away money from other states. Less populous states get back more than they contribute because it costs more to maintain their interstates than their motorists pay in gas taxes.
Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, called the bill a "budget-buster" that violates the administration's $284 billion limit.
Scott Milburn, a spokesman for the White House budget office, said after the vote: "The administration's position is well known and unchanged. If Congress passes a bill that exceeds $283.9 billion, the president's senior advisers will recommend that he veto it."
The budget office has pointed out that at $284 billion, the highway bill represents a 35 percent spending increase from the last big transportation legislation, approved in 1998.
The vote also drew criticism from budget watchdogs.
"At a time when Democrats and Republicans are always at each other's throats, we can take comfort that they still agree on breaking the budget for highways," Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group, said sarcastically. "Pork knows no party label." He expressed concern that the Senate vote could open the door to other efforts to exceed spending limits.
But Sen. James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who favored the higher amount, responded, "I would challenge anyone to match my conservative credentials." He said the highway bill would not only create jobs and spur economic growth but also, through highway safety programs, save lives.
The long-stalled bill provides funds through 2009 for building as well as maintaining roads, highway safety programs and mass transit projects.
Supporters of the higher amount said they found ways to raise money, such as cracking down on fuel tax fraud, so they could increase highway spending without worsening the deficit. But critics have assailed those measures as "accounting gimmicks."
Congress has been racing to complete work on a six-year highway bill - more than 1 1/2 years after the last measure expired - before a temporary authorization for highway programs expires at the end of the month. But the higher amount in the Senate bill could complicate negotiations with the House to reconcile differences.
Although the House bill stays within the $284 billion spending limit set by the president, it, too, has angered deficit hawks because it includes thousands of lawmakers' pet projects, including transportation museums and a snowmobile trail in Vermont.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.